Keeping Up With the Joneses' Sex Lives

Cristen Conger

Can other people's sex affect our own happiness?
Can other people's sex affect our own happiness?

Do you know how often your friends and neighbors are having sex? If you're having sex frequently, finding out those intimate details could translate to a happiness boost, says a new study out of the University of Colorado at Boulder. Sort of.

For "Sex and the Pursuit of Happiness: How Other People's Sex Lives are Related to our Sense of Well-Being," sociology associate professor Tim Wadsworth compared how happy more than 15,000 people rated themselves against their self-reported sexual activity. When Wadsworth crunched the numbers he found that folks who were having sex on a weekly basis were 44 percent happier than those who hadn't had sex in the previous year. For those having sex two and three times per week, the effect was even greater; they were 55 percent happier than the no-sex-for-a-year group.

Although frequency of sex can have physiological benefits and may indicate greater relationship stability and closeness, Wadsworth interpreted the happiness-sex correlation differently. The more sex couples have in part makes them increasingly happy because of a comparison effect; there's an inherent happiness boost we derive, Wadsworth proposes, from thinking that we're doing it more often than people around us in the same way that money buys happiness the most when we feel like we're raking in more cash than our peers. If we're wealthy, but our neighbors are filthy rich, income doesn't have as strong of a happiness effect as it would if our neighbors were of modest means. Similarly in the bedroom, Wadsworth estimated that for a couple having sex a few times per month that assumes their peer group is doing it weekly, they're 14 percent less likely to report a higher level of happiness.

So how do people know how much sex is happening around them? Hopefully not thanks (or no thanks) to thin walls. Those stats are freely available from sources like The Kinsey Institute's 2010 survey on sexual behavior, of course! Roughly speaking, married couples between 25 and 49 years old are having sex "a few times per month to weekly." To get more specific, data from the General Social Survey, which also is the data set Wadsworth pulled from, find that married couples have sex 58 times per year. And if that number sounds disconcertingly low, here's a funnily worded conclusion from a separate 2004 study on income, sex and happiness that monogamous couples may find comfort in: "The happiness-maximizing number of sexual partners in the previous year is calculated to be 1."

But here's a final hunch in response to all of these metrics: keeping an intercourse tally is a quick way to sap one's happiness. Not to mention that though sex is foundational to relationship health, it isn't the only ingredient to long-term happiness. Contentment can go a long way, too.